Environmental activist Anne Marie Mueser has accusedCommissioner Curt Hebert Jr. of potentially compromising hisimpartiality in a case involving Southern Natural Gas Co.’s (Sonat) northern Alabama project – a proceeding that is scheduled forrehearing at FERC’s bi-monthly meeting today. She thinks Hebertshould consider recusing himself from the case.

In an Oct. 21 letter to Hebert, she questioned thecommissioner’s objectivity in the wake of his “thank you” lettersto officials of Sonat and two Alabama utilities – the majorproponents of the extension project – in which he wrote that,while he couldn’t comment on the merits of the case, he felt “verystrongly” about the issues the parties raised and would “carefullyconsider” their points.

“Your somewhat unusual correspondence with the applicant [Sonat]and two supporting parties remains unexplained anddiscomforting…and presents potential questions about yourcontinuing objectivity” in the case, wrote Mueser, chairman of theGASP Coalition, which represents landowners who are opposed to theSonat project. GASP is seeking rehearing of the Sonat extensionproject, which received a final certificate in May 1997.

But for Hebert, sending “generic” letters to those who write himis “customary and actually good protocol as a commissioner…I’vealways done that and will continue to do so. It doesn’t show anyprejudice whatsoever because it is a generic letter,” he countered,adding that he included his correspondence with Mueser and theother parties in the Sonat case file to avoid any concerns aboutviolating ex parte rules.

Hebert’s “thank you” notes were in response to a letter thatJames Rubright, executive vice president of Sonat, sent to ChairmanJames Hoecker. Hebert personally responded to Rubright; HenryO’Quinn, assistant general manager of Huntsville Utilities; andDavid L. Parks, interim general manager of Decatur Utilities. “Ithink it’s interesting…he did not thank the competing pipelinefor their letters,” Mueser noted. She was referring to MidcoastInterstate Transmission, which proposed an alternative proposalunder which it would build essentially the second leg of theproject to serve Decatur Utilities and Huntsville Utilities.

In response to Mueser’s critical letter, Hebert’s staff on Oct.23 sent her “the same [thank-you] letter that they sent theothers…exactly word for word,” she told NGI. “But thiscommissioner doesn’t get it. It is not appropriate for a sittingcommissioner to be corresponding with an applicant or any activeparties to a contested proceeding,” including herself. “It’s justoff the wall. I’m a veteran of the Iroquois [proceedings]. And Ihave never seen anything quite as bizarre as this.”

Should he recuse himself from the Sonat case? “If his letter tothe two utilities and to the applicant were some sort of a hiddensignal that ‘Don’t worry folks I’m with you,’ absolutely he shouldrecuse himself. But I can’t get into his head,” Mueser said. “IfCommissioner Hebert thinks that I am going to drop this issue,which I think has to do with the integrity of the process, I willnot. And sending me the same letter just doesn’t cut it.”

Although “I have noticed what I believe to be an admirablewillingness on your part to take a strong and independent stand andto speak your mind on matters before you,” Mueser wrote in herletter, “it is my hope and expectation…that you [Hebert] willbecome fully informed about the facts and controversies involvingSouthern’s North Alabama Pipeline Project before reaching areasoned and fair determination.”

In the end, Mueser said she expects FERC to uphold its earlierdecision on the Sonat project, and to approve an amended route forthe extension that would follow Interstate 65. But that won’t bethe end of the case. She said she’ll be “watching carefully” today”to prepare my petition for rehearing and my appeal to the D.C.Circuit.”

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